The Backyard Astronomer: Summer nights and our galaxy's never-ending stage of celestial wonders

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      It was this time last year that Comet NEOWISE graced our skies, allowing the world to gaze upon the heavens and follow its nightly glide amongst the stars. (The acronym NEOWISE stands for Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer). Not since Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 has a comet been as bright.

      These mountains of rock and ice are usually small, faint targets that only a telescope can reveal. July 2020 belonged to NEOWISE, with its long dust tail easily visible in the bright moonlight. It was a time that we all needed a distraction from Covid-19. Nature has a way of helping to relieve stress and anxiety.

      Although there are no predicted bright comets visible for the near future, the night sky is a never-ending stage to view celestial objects with a telescope, binoculars, or just the naked eye.

      Gary Boyle

      The easiest to spot is, of course, the moon. On the night of July 11, look for a challenging slender four-percent thumbnail crescent low in the western sky just after sunset. The following night, its illumination increases to nine percent and is positioned to the upper left of Venus and tiny, orange Mars (very close to Venus, at the lower left).

      This is a great time to see the “ghostly” unlit portion of the moon, called Earthshine (or the Da Vinci Glow). This is also a prime photography moment for digital single-lens reflex cameras on a tripod. But the moon is a fantastic sight in any telescope, especially along the dividing line of its day and night sides.

      The two gas giants of the solar system are now above the southeast horizon well before midnight local time. Saturn and its majestic rings rise at about 10 p.m., with much brighter Jupiter and its Galilean moons appearing about an hour later. Words cannot describe seeing these in a telescope.

      Saturn can be seen by amateur astronomers through relatively inexpensive telescopes. Here, actual photos of Earth and the ringed planet are juxtaposed to give a comparative idea of the size of one of our solar syatem's gas giants.

      Also, take advantage of nights when the moon (and its sometimes obscuring light) is absent from the sky to see the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy. Visible from the countryside, away from all light sources, this band of light is the collective glow of billions of distant stars. It stretches from the right side of the “teapot” in the constellation Sagittarius in the south to overhead—running through Cygnus the Swan, dubbed the ”Northern Cross”—and continues through the iconic “W” of the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen.

      With many people heading to campgrounds and cottages, sit back with friends and family and look upon a clear, moonless night for a peaceful setting. You will see slow earthly satellites and quick-moving sporadic meteors. While you stare at the stars (all distant suns), breathe in the fresh night air as sounds of frogs and crickets play their soothing tones.

      The Milky Way arch. The bright object at top centre is the planet Jupiter.
      Bruno Gilli/ESO

      Binoculars can reveal a treasure trove of star clusters along the Milky Way, as well as a few star-forming regions. Hundreds of stars are can be seen at a glance. Astronomers now consider that every star has at least one planet orbiting it. A tiny fraction of these "exoplanets" are Earth-sized and reside far enough from their suns for water (if they have any) to stay liquid. This could be an indication that life might exist on that distant world, too far for us to travel to.

      Over the next couple of months, take advantage of experiencing nature whenever and wherever possible. Embrace the summer night for all it has to offer.

      Till next time, clear skies.

      Known as “The Backyard Astronomer”, Gary Boyle is an astronomy educator, guest speaker, and monthly columnist for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He has been interviewed on more than 50 Canadian radio stations and local Ottawa TV. In recognition of his public outreach in astronomy, the International Astronomical Union has honoured him with the naming of Asteroid (22406) Garyboyle. Follow him on Twitter: @astroeducator or his website: